How do you get to Carnegie Hall? at SF Novelists

One of the sites I enjoy reading because they talk about theory in intelligent ways is SF Novelists. Today’s post, by Marie Brennan, is about the concept of practicing as a writer.

To me, writing feels kind of the same way. Sure, I can always revise; if I realize that thing my characters did last chapter would logically result in them getting killed, I can go back and have them do something less dumb. But is that the same thing as practice? To some extent it’s a moot question: “practice” is a concept strongly associated with performance arts, music or dance, or competitive things like sports, where there’s a specific event you’re preparing for, at which point you will deploy the skills you’ve learned. Writing is more comparable to sculpture, say, or painting. It’s aimed toward a product, not a event.

I wrote a response in the comments, but I want to expand on it here. To begin, I should explain that I was an art major with a minor in theater and speech. Clearly, I’m also now a writer.

I also practice.

See in art school, they’d have us do these things like taking a 4H [1. Pencils range from H to B with the H being the light end and B being the dark end] pencil and shading with it from light to dark as smoothly as possible. Next to it, we’d use a 3H and on up through the scale into the heaviest B’s so that we knew what each pencil did and how to handle it.

As a puppeteer, I spent an entire day, just walking a puppet around a table at different speeds until I could do it without thought.

For instance, one writing technique is describing scenic locations. When I first started, I had an instructor who made us sit down and spend a page or so describing the area that we were in without worrying about character or plot or any of those things. We were supposed to make certain that we used all of the senses, but otherwise it was just about experiencing the setting. I’ll still do that occasionally, because it’s an incredibly useful technique.

When we got back to class, she asked us to pick the first thing we noticed. That first thing tells you a lot about the character. For instance, if I walk into a room, the first thing I’m likely to notice might be that the painting is crooked on the wall. A baker walking in might notice the smell of cinnamon first. You see? Those are conscious techniques that I can use and practice.

To get deep penetration third POV down, at Literary Bootcamp Orson Scott Card had us write about a recent hour in our lives in third person, without concern about plot. Again, it forced me to focus on that technique without having to worry about story.

I’ve taken third person stories and re-written them as first, to see what would happen.

I’ve played with authorial voice, deliberately, to see what happens if I have a visible narrator.

Back in college, while taking figure drawing we’d start out with these things called gesture drawings. Fast sketches, designed to make us loosen up and think about the whole page instead of getting hung up on a detail.

As a writer, I do that too. On the weekends, (though I’m out of practice now) I do a flash fiction challenge at Liberty Hall where we have an hour and a half to crank out a finished story from a trigger. It forces you to think about plot without giving you time to slow down and let the inner editor panic. It also trained me to write fast, clean first drafts.

As a art major, heck as a theater designer, I’d do thumbnail sketches before launching into a full piece. Just quick things to give me a sense of the composition as a whole. Again, at Literary BootCamp, OSC had us do basically the same thing. We sketched out complete story ideas on an index card. It didn’t have every detail, but it had the basic structure. I had serious plot problems before BootCamp, but that technique… it’s made a difference.

As an art major and as an actor, I learned to to hone my techniques without worrying about the art. The idea was that when I’m actually creating a piece, whether it’s in performance or not, that I don’t want to be wasting energy trying to figure out my tools. I want them to come to me as naturally as breathing. I don’t see any reason that writers can’t and shouldn’t do the same.

At the workshop I went to this past summer, Kristine Kathryn Rusch said (and I’m paraphrasing) that we are storytellers and the manuscript is the tool that we use to convey the story in our head to the reader. That makes complete sense to me. So, why not practice my craft and my techniques so that I can focus on the story when it comes time to tell it?

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3 Responses

  1. Lawrence M. Schoen

    Some very good ideas and examples here. Thanks for reminding me. I used to do this sort of thing quite regularly but it’s fallen away of late. It would surely do me good to get back up on that horse.

    I’ve never heard of Liberty Hall. Care to speak of it some more?

    1. Mike Munsil

      Lawrence

      Liberty Hall Writers is an online website and forums dedicated to getting people writing and keeping them writing. Our primary means to do so are by weekly Flash Challenges. We also host Short Story Challenges and Polish Challenges.

      You can find out more at our wiki: http://wiki.libertyhallwriters.org

      Mary is one of our founding members. If she has time, she can tell you more. Or you can go here and read this interview: http://www.flashfictiononline.com/c20080102-interview-liberty-hall-mike-munsil.html

      Mike

  2. Krista

    Nicely articulated! And an excellent nudge to practice more, worry less. 🙂 Also makes me think of how if I’m having trouble writing, I’ll often give myself the equivalent of an acting warm-up…a silly self-assignment that doesn’t have to be polished or productive, but just gets the creative juices flowing. I’ve recently been doing that, although not entirely consciously, and it’s very helpful to be able to name it. Many thanks!
    Think I’ll go stretch some writing muscles.